It would be desirable, then, for us to have an accurate, effective method, beyond this “common sense” method, with which to analyze standards of living in any given historical age within any given society.
Richard H. Steckel, in “Biological Measures of the Standard of Living” proposes that biological investigations, in four categories of measurement, are effective to complement traditional analyses based on wealth. While his essay does acknowledge the value of monetary measures of societal health and well-being, it also suggests that these models are reaching their pinnacle, unable to add significantly to further and more sophisticated understanding of standard of living trends and phenomena in our present or historical human societies. While, traditionally and broadly, the investigations into this field have been materially (resource or monetarily based), psychologically (perceived happiness or satisfaction based) or health focused, Steckel’s claim is that a more complete knowledge and understanding of human well-being can, henceforward, only be achieved by the continued blurring of the boundaries between economy, biology, psychology, demography, anthropology, history, medicine and other disciplines. Within this argument, Steckel provides the reader with a persuasive and thorough examination of the four possible biological methodologies used, and serves to highlight the effectiveness of these standards of measurement as they can be applied to human social history.
Perhaps the most widely known biological measure of standards of living is the predictive statistic of Life Expectancy at Birth. Steckel examines the methodology of collecting data to compile Life Tables, as well as suggesting the limitations of the data reflected in these tables. While effective data collection has been possible for the last two centuries in many countries, administrative structures in societies prior to 1800 were noticeably lacking. It is necessary in order for data to be